PUEBLO COUNTY, Colo. - Many of the suspects arrested for illegal marijuana operations in southern Colorado are from Mexico or South America but commonly from Cuba.
The Pueblo County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday's bust of five homes in Pueblo West -- the largest in county history -- targeted a Cuban syndicate with ties to Florida.
Five people were arrested in the raid, and illegally grown marijuana valued at more than $1 million was seized.
It's the 16th bust of the year by Pueblo County.
The presence of Cuban activity in local illegal pot production was first confirmed in September 2015 in a series of eight busts in Custer and Fremont counties.
But Cuban involvement has become more apparent this year as the sheriff's offices in Pueblo County, El Paso County, and Teller County have increased enforcement.
Deputy Chief Dave Lucero, of Pueblo County, said details of how the Cuban syndicate operates are unclear.
"We don't exactly know all of their ties at this point," he said. "I can't say where they're going. We certainly believe they're going out of state, into the black market. As for a final destination, you could surmise they're going to Florida. But there's no direct evidence of that."
Lucero said Cuban suspects, like the ones arrested in Pueblo West this week, are becoming more sophisticated in their operations.
"They're going to great lengths to disguise the marijuana odor," he said. "They're using air scrubbers. So it's harder for neighbors -- and us -- to identify it."
Because illegal growing operations have been found in neighborhoods and rural areas, Lucero said he's concerned about long-term impacts on the environment and human health.
"They use unknown chemicals," he said. "And the labels have been removed when we get there, so we don't know what they're using. The effect on septic systems and sewer systems where the chemicals get dumped is unclear."
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell confirmed the presence of a Cuban connection but they have different ideas about its extent.
"I think there are connections in nearly every grow, using undocumented Cuban immigrants to monitor the grows," Elder said. "But I don't think there's a big conspiracy. The people at these grows are doing them because they owe a debt to someone."
"I'd say there are Cuban organized crime cartels, absolutely," Mikesell said. "They work like terrorist cells. And they're not just growing pot. They're dangerous, family-run businesses. They're into murder and sex trafficking. They get into the community, they set up shop, they gather intelligence and they figure out the best way to sell things."
Elder, Mikesell and Lucero believe their stronger enforcement has forced half of known illegal marijuana operations to stop or move to other areas.
Elder said his county has conducted 86 raids this year and seized marijuana valued at $1.5 million
Mikesell said his county has worked on 20 busts and seized marijuana worth $2.5 million.